Saturday, November 24, 2007

Idyllic Childhoods and Rude Awakenings

Today in the New York Times Online, Kurt Campbell blogs about how the Republicans are now trying to impugn Bill Clinton by saying he treated his presidency like a "holiday from history," ignoring global problems in favor of a " and frolicking interwar period." I found this article interesting and thought-provoking. Although I am a Democrat, I guess I too had thought of the 1990s as a "holiday from history." Campbell makes a good case for Clinton's real foreign policy achievements, but you have to admit that these are not as well publicized or as flashy as other events of the Clinton years.

Perhaps I can be excused for not knowing this about Clinton--I was a child, aged 5 to 13, during his presidency. And though all parents try to give their children a carefree childhood, I think that growing up in the 1990s was especially idyllic. I never had to worry about "the Commies." I never thought of America as having any real enemies, and if we got involved in a war, I was sure it would only be to help an innocent little country that was threatened by a nasty dictator (like Kuwait or Kosovo). I thought there would never be an attack on American soil, nor would America ever become the aggressor in a war. And though part of this is just childish naivete, I doubt I was the only person who felt this way. After all, the 1990s were the decade when people talked seriously about Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" theory.

I was 14, beginning my sophomore year of high school, on September 11. The external, foreign world came crashing into America and all I could think of was that old cliché "This is the first day of the rest of your life." And usually that's a positive, optimistic sentiment, but I saw it as something darker. I knew that the 1990s tranquility had vanished--for the rest of my life. And of course I was saddened and angry with the terrorists. But I have also felt increasingly betrayed by the Republican administration, whose policies make peace and tranquility even more a relic of a bygone age.

And now that I'm writing a play set in 1934, I can't help imagining that the girls I'm writing about experienced emotions similar to mine. They were born circa 1913, so the first five years of their lives were taken up by the "Great War," which probably frightened them, but they were too young to really understand it. Then, from the time they were 5 to the time they were 16, they experienced that "Gatsby-like interwar frivolity" that Campbell mentions. It was the Roaring Twenties, business boomed, the international community was basically at peace, it was just as idyllic as the 1990s were for me. But when they were about 16, the stock markets crashed, and the rest of their high school and college years were an attempt to find their way back to normalcy in an increasingly unstable world.

You can even draw further parallels, saying that in both cases, the crisis (9/11/01 or 10/29/29) occurred on a Tuesday in autumn, when the president (Bush or Hoover) hadn't even been in office for a year. This reinforces the sense that something had shifted: a new decade, a new president, a new era. Though of course, the people of the 1930s at least gained hope when they kicked Hoover out of office in 1932 and elected Roosevelt. Me, I've had to resign myself to spending my formative years, ages 13 to 21, under George Bush's presidency...and I couldn't even cast a symbolic vote against him in 2004.

Though my play is set in the past, I want it to be relevant to the present, so I'm trying to bring out this theme of an idyllic childhood suddenly shocked into brutal reality. I think my peers ought to relate. It's interesting to note that in the "Generations" theory of history, which sees things as cyclical, my generation (the Millenials) and the generation of the girls born in 1913 (the G.I or Greatest Generation) are categorized as belonging to the same point in the cycle. We are born during an Unraveling and come of age during a Crisis. Sounds pretty accurate to me.

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